A few shots of pink for Becky’s month of Squares.
A few shots of pink for Becky’s month of Squares.
Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it was the most charming of the places we visited in Vietnam. Beautiful, historic, colourful, if you only visit one place in Vietnam, make it here.
This city was once a major port from the 15th to the 19th century. The famous Chua Cau Bridge was built by the Japanese in the late 1500s to join the Japanese section to the Chinese traders. It is in what is known as the Old Quarter and the various architecture and industry of old is well-preserved. The bridge is very popular and worth the fee to travel to the Old Quarter.
Boats line the central port, ready to take you on various short or long journeys and fishing nets sit, suspended over the river until used.
The city is known for its lanterns and its tailors. In both, you will be spoilt for choice.
And, while it is very pretty by day, it is enchanting by night. My camera at the time was determined to thwart my attempts, but I think you’ll get the picture.
We stayed in a hotel with a Spanish flavor, although I think they would say French. Five generations of the family had built 5 separate sections, or blocks and there was a bakery well-beneath us. It was a bit of a warren, but very attractive, nonetheless, and at 3 stars I’d be way out of my comfort in 5 stars.
There are markets a-plenty and more places to eat than you could possibly visit if you stayed a year. We spent one day visiting My Son.
We were picked up by private car and taken to My Son (miha sonne) via countryside abloom with lotuses. A shuttle took us 2 km up the hill in 38C so we didn’t complain. The ruins are beautiful – great colour and structure of what is left after the bombing of 1968. The blackened walls are a sombre reminder that more than lives were destroyed. The Cham people were from 11C and these were their temples and meeting places – what we had learned were the first buildings erected as they were central to a village.
The walk was great – picturesque and informative. The vegetation was dense and many gum trees were there. The driver said that they were very very old and that the people made eucalyptus oil ‘for the muscle and the baby’.
On our return, I noticed some extensive waterlily areas and the driver kindly stopped while I sloshed off in the mud to capture them.
In the afternoon, we held off lunch until the shuttle took is to the beach, where we found soul café, recommended by a previous guide (Thanh). Had a cheap lunch of spring rolls and cau lau. Then we headed for the beach and avoided paying for a simple mat or a more luxurious lounge, choosing the sand instead. I was the only one who headed for the water and it was warm and salty. There were 2 lifeguards and red flags set up between which to swim. Few people were in the water, as most lounged under the grass huts or on the lazy boys. It wasn’t sunny, but still hot.
We saw some fishermen take their round boats out, using just a rudder but getting very far. There were junks on the water, too, but we didn’t see anyone on them. This beach is not the main beach. On arrival in Hoi An, the driver took us to an esplanade which I believe is the main swimming area.
However, I loved the character of the beach we ended at. In fact, the whole character of Hoi An was delightful. We felt safe walking the streets by day or night and knew to tip drivers, restaurateurs and the like. This was the tail end of our trip and a great way to end it.
Travel safe. Buy your water in Vietnam, but have plenty of it and take a hat (although the conical rice hats are the best sunshades I have ever worn).
Nearly two years have passed and yet I cannot forget the trip to Sa Pa, in Vietnam’s remote northwest. We took the train, and there the adventure began.
The train to Cao Lai on the Chinese border was very long and, as our first sleeper, the bunks and bedside snacks were snug and welcoming. As the train departed, though, I cannot begin to explain the various directions I was pulled in and rolled to and how many bodily functions I wanted to perform at once. Sometimes I stood outside our cabin, swaying in the coolness of the breeze that swept down the corridors through the open doors, monitored by one of the carriage guards. Motion sickness tablets work and I managed a satisfactory sleep, over the night. Someone knocked on our door at 5.15am and I awoke to the lush green vegetation of the hills whizzing past the window. It was lovely.
We were collected by a pre-booked local driver and guide and took the steep, winding road to Sa Pa. Apparently, you can take a bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa, but it is narrow and winding, so I’m not sure the journey would have been any better. My husband says the train trip was the highlight of our entire Vietnam holiday, so each to their own. The guide took us to a little shop for some breakfast and then we began our walk through the main streets, heading for Catcat.
Heading out of the town, you quickly come to the terraces for which the area is known, and although it was the warm season, a thick fog cloaked the hills in magic.
Steep terraced hills are sewn with rice and hemp and water buffalo roam freely when not tied to a plough. Our guide, Cuong, was local to the area and he explained the rice growing seasons, dyeing hemp and the importance of marriage and children. He was clearly on the lookout for a wife and at one time displayed his skill with a flute.
Cuong took us through the market stalls of his people, explaining that they rely on tourism to survive. Inexperienced travellers, we only learnt much later that it is customary to tip and one of the great regrets I have is that we did not do so in Sa Pa. We were taken to the house of a friend of our guide and shown the hemp drying. The young woman, 20 years old and with 2 children, had a photo with my son, who was 23, outside the house where she dyes with indigo and weaves the hemp, as her mother and grandmother did before her.
We reached the beautiful falls and were told that the windmills are replaced often, as they do not last long.
At the top of the falls we were entertained by a traditional story, with music and dancing. The varieties of dress and props was extraordinary and the venue perfect.
Cuong took us to two schools, as we are teachers, and at the school where he went we spoke to the teachers. I was surprised that, instead of a bell, they have a large drum that can be heard around the mountains. No drum monitors, though; only the Principal can call the children to the classroom.
The paths were good and as we went higher once more, the mist swept in. We passed ancient stones whose purpose even the guide did not know, but he did know a good place for lunch, in Lao Chai, overlooking a deep river, dry at the time.
Back past terraced mountainsides, we went to Sa Pa and walked its steep streets.
Then sat in a square, opposite the church, as the fog set in and we waited for our ride back to Lao Cai.
Where we sat and remembered the band of peddlers who seemed to follow us around the countryside. The Hmong people, of whom there are black Hmong, white Hmong, red Hmong and many more, are among the most marginalised people in Vietnam. They had the best English as their livelihoods depended upon it and we became quite fond of them, really.
Sa Pa, full of beauty and struggle. You can do home stays (we met a couple of Frenchmen who said it was amazing), hire motorbikes (we’re told that’s quite dangerous if you don’t know the roads) or book treks over the mountains. We went cautiously, as is our way.
Safe Travels. Tip generously. Buy bottled water.
We have only travelled outside of Australia once, and that was in response to our critics, who challenged us to look beyond our beautiful shores and have a different experience. So we booked to go to Vietnam in our fortnight of school holidays.
Our excellent travel consultant, Joan Newbery, from Phil Hoffmann Travel, advised us that if we planned to attempt the whole country in 11 days, we would go far and see little. She advised us to do the north, the south or a region. Researching weather and places of interest, we decided to do the north. Ha Noi, Sa Pa, Halong Bay, Hue and Hoi An.
Day 1 – 10 hours of flying to Ha Noi, then familiarisation
Day 2 – Tour that included temples, lakes, museums, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Centre of Ethnicity, the Temple of Literature and an on-the-spot art gallery. Water puppets in the evening.
Day 3 – Hoan Kiem Lake, Museum of Revolution, St Joseph’s Cathedral, walking Ha Noi, overnight train to Cao Lai .
Day 4 – Drive to Sa Pa (most marginalised region of Vietnam), guide through the town and villages, then back to Cao Lai and overnight train to Ha Noi.
Day 5 and 6 – chauffeured to Ha Long Bay, via Dai Vien factory (worked by victims of Agent Orange), for 2-day cruise.
Day 7 – chauffeured to domestic airport in Ha Noi, via Dai Vien again and a massive Catholic Church. Flight to Hue.
Day 8 – Hue. We walked to the tourist operator area and booked a driver for 4 places, at $27. We went to the Citadel, Thien Mu pagoda, Thế Miếu temple, The Tomb of Khải Định and another that I can’t recall. We were taken to lunch at a place near the temple and the driver also stopped at the incense village where we made incense and then we bought some. We were also taken to Khai Dinh Tomb. Much more than the agreed destinations so we tipped him well.
Day 9 – Drive to Hoi An with a guide, via a roadside stop at the birthplace of the last queen, also known for eucalyptus oil manufacture, then Hai Van Pass, fish farm, Red Beach for lunch, arriving at Hoi An. The Central Markets were an interesting haggling experience and then food choices were plentiful.
Day 10 – Old town, tailors and lanterns.
Day 11 – Private car to My Son. 11th Century buildings. Took a shuttle to the beach in the afternoon – pretty chilled.
Day 12 – A morning at the pool, then flights from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City, then to Melbourne and then home.
A lot of distance, a very different experience from Australia, so much colour, so many people.
I’ve tried to keep this blog short, so if you have any questions or want more detail, please let me know, as I am happy to add anything if I can.
Make sure you tip. Wear a hat, do tours and shop in the remote areas.
Would we go overseas again? Vietnam is unforgettable.
Cee Neuner mentioned the one word challenge and I immediately thought of the incense sticks in Thuy Xuan Village in Hue, Vietnam.
This town once handmade all the incense for Vietnam. My son and I had a go at making some – looks a lot easier than it is.
Vietnam is the only country I have been to, outside of Australia. There is so much colour there, but this is the memory that rose foremost.